Monday Matters (Novmeber 29, 2021)

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Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
-I Corinthians 12:31

 

There are few practical roadmaps to show us how to generate and integrate grace in our lives. When I decided to make grace my touchstone, I unknowingly fell back on flawed Christian teaching that has left many of us throwing up our hands and declaring grace an unachievable and impractical goal. I imagined that by engaging in Olympian amounts of prayer, meditation, church attendance, and consumption of spiritual texts I would be so filled up with the love of God, I’d just overflow with the stuff. I’d be a veritable human Pez dispenser of grace. The contempt coursing through my veins would drain out of me, and I’d be a new person. I’ll cut to the chase. It didn’t work.
-Kristen Powers, Saving Grace

 

We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.
-Martin Luther

 

There are only two kinds of [men]: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.
-Blaise Pascal

 

Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.
-Richard Foster

Exceeding righteousness

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 5:19-20

When I embarked on a journey through the Sermon on the Mount, I knew there would be Mondays that would leave me saying, “Huh?” Today’s one of those days.

Let’s get right to it, with that bit about righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. As I scanned commentaries, I found I’m not the only one who finds this perplexing. The whole narrative of the gospels seems to be that the scribes and the Pharisees, the really religious people of the day are clueless. (Let’s just say I hear that as a caution to those of us who serve as clergy.) Little children and promiscuous persons and tax collectors and outsiders have more understanding of the kingdom than religious leaders. Is Jesus saying that we need to try to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, whose hypocrisy is in plain view? Are we supposed to follow their script when Jesus has called them blind guides and whited sepulchers? That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is that Jesus is asking disciples to consider these questions: What race are you running? In what stream are you swimming? What do you think will get you where you want to go? What do you value?

If you want to play the scribes and Pharisees game, which is to try to get your theology right, try to get your practice right, try to cross every “t” and dot every “i”, to never make a mistake, go for it. But that’s a big mountain to climb, that teeth-gritting effort to be a spiritual super-hero. Trying to make sure we get it all right can be a rat race and it’s been noted that the problem with winning a rat race is that at the end, you’re still a rat. We can enter into that kind of righteous rat race, if we so choose. It can all be so exhausting.

But there is another way, which in my mind is what the Sermon on the Mount is laying out for us. That way says that the way to the righteousness of spiritual over-achievement is simply the way of love (which is the commandment Jesus embraces). It begins with understanding righteousness not so much as a moral checklist as a matter of relationship, being rightly related. And that way (St. Paul called it a more excellent way in the lead-in to his hymn about love in I Corinthians 13) exceeds the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees. By way of a sneak preview, the verses we’ll look at in the coming weeks talk about lives lived in righteousness. Jesus says it’s not as much a matter of outward actions as it is a matter of the heart that sets us in right relationship with God and with each other.

If this is indeed what Jesus had in mind (and folks, I could be wrong), then we are called to pursue a righteousness that comes by faith in the power of God’s grace to make us what we were created to be. It begins by recognizing that we can’t do this on our own, by our own willfulness. We need help because we will fall short. It continues with expressions of gratitude (which we observed over the past weekend) that it’s not all up to us. We will with God’s help. And then it finds expression in the practice of love of God and neighbor, the two being inseparable, the two commandments that sum up all the law, even the least of the laws. That practice is a reflection of the grace that has been shown to us. When we all get around to that kind of practice, I imagine that is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Give it some thought, give it a shot this first week of Advent.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

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Monday Matters (November 22, 2021)

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Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34, 35

 

Oh to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee;
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for the courts above.
-Hymn 686, Stanza 3

 

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
-Hymn 469 Stanza 3

Jesus and the law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
-Matthew 5:17-18

In discussions in church, I often run across the opinion that the God of the Old Testament underwent some kind of personality change in the New Testament. That’s based on associations people have with some stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God seems to resemble Zeus throwing lightning bolts down on unsuspecting earthlings, or perhaps a more recent image, a Gary Larson cartoon where God is depicted sitting at his computer. On the screen, we see that a street scene. A rope lifting a grand piano has snapped. The Steinway, plummeting earthward, is about to smash a pedestrian. God is pressing the smite button on his keyboard. Does that ever fit your image of God?

No doubt about it, there is judgment in the earliest books of the Bible. But there is also judgment in the New Testament (Have you read some of Jesus’ parables of judgment, or the Book of Revelation recently?) And while the God of the New Testament is associated with grace and mercy, there is plenty of grace and mercy to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, surfacing in the oft-repeated word hesed which means lovingkindness.

All of which is to say that we often pit grace and law, mercy and judgment against each other. Our faith seems to be either about rules or relationship, about laws or love. You can have one or the other. Our proclivity for dualistic thinking tells us you can’t have it both ways. But Jesus shows us another way.

As we continue reflection on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we can imagine listeners, including critics, imagining that he was trying to scrap tradition. In today’s verses, he makes the point that he comes to fulfill the tradition, not abolish it. Fulfillment is the keyword.

We get a glimpse of what he meant by it when he was asked about the most important commandment. Jesus didn’t come up with some new-fangled vision. He returned to the first pages of the Bible to find that all the law and prophets is summed up in grace, in love of God and neighbor.

It is apparently easy for religious folks to turn the law into a matter of rules, and thus a source of division, using the law as a bludgeon. Jesus chooses another way, as he speaks about embracing the law given by Moses. He says that those laws are key to the healing of our souls, and the healing of the world. Those laws (the word teaching may be a helpful synonym for law) given by God, we’re all about helping people, coaching people, leading people in the way of love. And when those laws seemed to butt up against each other (e.g., when Jesus is led to heal long-term illnesses on the Sabbath), the law of love and compassion takes precedence. Lord knows we could use that kind of guidance in the wilderness of our broken world.

So what’s the so-what factor in all of this? Religious rules are ultimately about relationship. When they divide us, or damage relationship, the law is not fulfilled. But even the nit-pickiest, most persnickety religious rule can be seen as an expression of love of God and neighbor and self. When that happens, we see the law fulfilled.

Sure, we can turn our faith, our religious practice, the scripture, even a theology of grace, into something that divides people, into a source of pride. But Jesus calls us to see everything we do through the lens of love of God and neighbor, a fairly rigorous standard (perhaps even a law) which turns out to be a pretty good way to look at the world. It’s a good lens to regard our religious practice, whatever that may be, to think about how we put faith to work in the world, as a response to God’s call to the way of love. It’s a good lens to bring into this week when we’re asked to think about thanksgivings. How will you be a follower of Jesus, fulfilling the law?

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 15, 2021)

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This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

 

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
-William Shakespeare

 

Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
-Brene Brown

 

It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
– John 1:6-9, 14

 

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
– Ephesians 2:8-10

Light

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus doesn’t say: Try to be the light of the world. You ought to be the light of the world. You better be the light of the world. He offers a declarative, unequivocal statement. A statement of fact to his followers. This is who you are. So be who you are.

Do you feel like a light this morning? I often feel like a dim bulb, stumbling in the dark. That makes it hard to believe that I can provide light for anybody else. Not enough wattage.

But Jesus says let the light that you have shine. Not so that people will say: What a great person that guy is! Our lights are meant to point beyond ourselves to an experience of God (see bit about John the Baptist above). Our lights are meant for people to see good works and by the light of those good works, to have a sense of the glory of God.

What do we know about the glory of God? In reflection on these verses, I kept thinking about St. Irenaeus, who, in the second century said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive. We shine a light on the glory of God when we live fully into what God has called us to do and be. Jesus said that he came to bring life and to bring it in abundance (John 10:10). Our good work is to live into that abundant life, to love God and love neighbor, to be fully alive in a world where powers of death are strong. The letter to the Romans (6.11) speaks about how we formerly were dead to sin. The letter to the Ephesians (2.1) says we were dead in trespasses but are made alive in Christ by grace.

So we, beloved children of God, objects of grace, are called to let that light shine, not because we’re so awesome ourselves (though you are a great group of readers) but because God is awesome. We can be light because Jesus is light.

Of course, that old ego (You know that ego is really an acronym for edging God out) finds its way into our psyche, into our hearts. I find it almost impossible to avoid self-consciousness about good works. (How lucky God is to have me on the team!) When I become aware of a good work, the next step often can be to compare and contrast with others, asking why don’t those folks do the kind of good works I do? Why don’t they care about causes I care about? What’s wrong with those spiritually deficient folks? The good works clearly can become fertile ground for the most unattractive qualities of religious folk

But thanks be to God, All Saints’ Day is still fresh in mind. I love the phrase from the Prayer Book that speaks about saints as lights in their generation. For all the saints (i.e., all of us) have light to share, as I often hear at the end of yoga practice, where the teacher will say some version of the following: The light in me sees and honors the light in you. How will you let your light shine so that people can see something of God’s activity, so that people can come to understand something of the love of God, the grace of God, the glory of God? How will you live into that call to reveal the glory of God by being fully alive this week?

Here’s what I propose for this Monday morning: Confess that there are always mixed motives. Our light can flicker. Get over that and then think about how your own life can point to the glory of God, how you can let your light shine this week.

You are the light. Be the light.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 8, 2021)

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Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
from Eucharistic Prayer C in the Book of Common Prayer

 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
-Romans 12:1,2

Salt

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
-Matthew 5:13

After a talk I gave at a church on the topic of spiritual growth, a woman confessed: “I don’t know why all this talk about spiritual growth and transformation. I don’t expect anything to happen to me at church.” As I thought about her comment, I recognized that many people come to church to be comforted, to experience solace, to heal the wounds the world inflicts. In an unsettled world, many people seek stability, constancy, predictability. All good reasons. But maybe not the whole story.

Because if ever there was a change agent, it would be Jesus. He repeats metaphors about growth. He calls his disciples to follow him, not to stay put. He comes offering new life, abundant life and he invites his followers to participate in that process. Which brings us to the salt metaphor which he uses in the Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years, the phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean what? A mensch? The real deal? I don’t know exactly what Jesus had in mind with the image, but I think of all the properties of salt. It heals and cleanses. It preserves. It melts coldness. It makes stuff taste better. In Jesus’ culture, it was highly valuable. It makes life more interesting. Put all that together, and whatever Jesus had in mind, it seems that transformation is intended. His disciples were meant to bring growth, to bring change to their contexts, to make life more interesting, more appetizing, more healing. To make a difference.

So this morning, take this opportunity to look in your own spiritual rear-view mirror. How over the course of your life have you been transformed? Compare your spiritual life this morning to where you were spiritually five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. Are you in the same place? Have you changed? How so? What were the catalysts for that change?

Then think about whether you expect to be changed now. Are you open to the possibility that God has something new in store for you? That you can keep on growing? One church that was identified as being a particularly complacent crafted this tongue-in-cheek tagline: “We’re spiritually shallow and fine with that.” The call of the gospel is to keep on growing. As disciples, we are learners, and there is always more to learn.

Finally, think about how you might be that agent of change in your own context. What are the opportunities for you to be a healing, cleansing agent? What opportunities are there for you to preserve? What opportunities are there for you to melt coldness of heart? What opportunities are there for you to simply make life more interesting for the sake of those around you?

When I was serving as a rector, someone once asked me: “If tomorrow morning your church disappeared from your community, would anyone notice? What would be the difference?” We can ask that about our faith communities. We could ask that about the impact we have as individuals. Jesus calls us to be salt in a world that is hungry, hurting, calling for healing, preservation, interest. How will you live out that kind of saltiness?

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our January cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (November 1, 2021)

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For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
-Hymn 287

All Saints

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
-Matthew 5:10-12

William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury once said: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” So here’s a holy coincidence. We come in our weekly series to this beatitude which speaks of those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And it happens to fall on All Saints Day, one of the great feasts of the church. On All Saints Day, we celebrate a great cloud of witnesses, especially those who knew the greatest persecution, whose lives ended in martyrdom for the sake of the gospel.

On this day, we often sing a song of the saints of God. When I hear that hymn, I think of a presentation I heard from a nurse who had spent time serving in another country. At a time of civil unrest, a number of Christians were being treated in her hospital. Soldiers burst in and dragged these Christians from their beds, took them out and shot them. In the presentation I attended, the woman reflected on the phrase from that hymn: “One was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I had often thought of this as a quaint, sweet, perhaps irrelevant hymn about having tea with the queen or something. It took on new meaning as she spoke of how she encountered that wild beast in the form of those soldiers.

At a bible study I led years ago, we had a steady, faithful crowd. One of our members asked if he could bring a friend. I said sure. This quiet, slight guest sat silently through our hour-long discussion. The passage before us was about persecution that comes to disciples. We talked about how we as people of faith experienced persecution. Friends and family and co-workers making fun of us. A conflict between church and a sporting event. Towards the end of the study, the guest asked if he could speak. It turns out he was a clergyman from Africa. A gang, part of a movement opposed to the Christian faith, had kidnapped him, taken him out of the city, handed him a shovel to dig his own grave. At gunpoint, looking down at that hole in the ground, he was told to renounce his faith. He stood face to face with a wild beast. This tiny man refused. For whatever holy reason, the kidnappers put down their guns and let him go.

At another bible study, ten years ago, a young man sat as a guest with a group that met weekly. The gathering is described in a book I just finished, entitled “Grace Will Lead Us Home.” It’s about the massacre at the Charleston church, Mother Emmanuel. That wild beast of a young man radicalized by white supremacists took the lives of those saints. They were saints blessed by families who witnessed to God’s life and love through their forgiveness. Into that horrific situation, something of the blessedness of the kingdom of God surfaced.

So we hear of blessings for those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Sometimes religious people are persecuted but it’s because they are being jerks in one way, being arrogant or close-minded, using the gospel to feed their ego. I believe Jesus is talking about something else, about taking a stand for God’s ways in a world with devil’s filled that threaten to undo us, to borrow language from Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.”

As you think about this beatitude, have you ever experienced persecution for righteousness’ sake? Is so, how so? If not, why not? Do you know people who have? Was it a blessing? A cause for rejoicing? Maybe we’ve escaped persecution because we keep our faith under wraps. A preacher in my youth once asked: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” No need to go looking for trouble, but pray for those who face persecution right now. And if that’s you, know that you are not alone in the struggle. And if it’s not you, think about what you’d be willing to give up for sake of God’s righteousness.

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us Thursday, November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link

Monday Matters (October 25, 2021)

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The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-Wendell Berry

 

The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.
-Mahatma Gandhi

 

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.
-Jimi Hendrix

 

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.
-Milan Kundera

Peace

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
-Matthew 5:9

I’ve read the beatitudes many times. In this time around, one of the things I’ve noticed (which you all probably have seen forever) is how each beatitude makes a different claim. Each holds a different promise. Some who are blessed will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Some will inherit the earth. Some will be comforted. Some will be filled. Some will receive mercy. Some will see God.

In today’s verse, we note that peacemakers will be called children of God. Think with me about what that means. Aren’t we all God’s children? It occurred to me that maybe what it means in this context is that peacemakers will bear a family resemblance to God. As God is a peacemaker, so those who make peace in our world will be called, seen as, identified as God’s children.

St. Paul spoke about God being our peacemaker, mostly through the ministry of Jesus. The letter to the Ephesians offers a reflection on the mystery of the church where people who had been distant from each other are brought together. In that letter, whether written by Paul or one of his students, we read that God working through Christ is our peace: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:13,14) Jesus, as he prepared to leave his disciples, said “Peace I leave with you.” (John 14:27) It was admittedly an other-worldly kind of peace (not as the world gives). So what does that other-worldly peace look like, that might create a sense of resemblance to God?

Peacemakers are those who do that work. And it can be work. Consider it first on a global scale. Yitzhak Rabin, whose work for peace ultimately made him an assassin’s target, spoke about peacemaking this way: “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” I suspect both sides of that peace agreement felt they were dealing with unsavory enemies. But they signed an agreement.

A bit closer to home, partisan divides in our nation make it important that we figure out how to live with people we disagree with, without resorting to violence. As Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” At the same time, the refrain “No peace without justice” means that peacemaking is not a matter of papering over differences or ignoring disparity. As Desmond Tutu has taught us, truth and reconciliation go hand in hand.

In our churches, in our liturgy, we act out peacemaking in the eucharist. We exchange the peace. It can become rote, even an occasion for exchanges of pleasantries, where people compliment each other on a good haircut or a strong fashion statement, or marvel or grieve over last nights’ sport scores. But that liturgical moment has huge importance, as it says that the work of peacemaking must always go on in the church, where injury often takes place, and where there is always a path toward reconciliation. The work of peacemaking must happen before we are fed spiritually with the bread and wine.

We have opportunity to be peacemakers in our homes, in our closest relationships, where peace is often the most difficult to achieve. Someone once told me that the Bible is really just a story of sibling rivalry. From the days of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, David’s rebellious sons, Jesus’ brothers, scripture tells us that peace in our homes may take work.

Maybe it all begins with doing the work that will bring peace in our hearts. That begins with carving out quiet time, like Milan Kundera with his dog. That comes with a deepening trust in God’s care and provision, gratitude for the love from which we can never be separated, love that calls us to freedom from anxiety, inviting us to give thanks in all things.

In our lives, there are all kinds of opportunities to be peacemakers. Is there some way you can take on that holy work this week? Is there some way you can pray (in word and action) for peace in our world, in our churches, in our homes, in our hearts? Apparently, it’s what children of God do.

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link

Monday Matters (October 18, 2021)

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Purity of heart is to will one thing.
-Soren Kierkegaard

 

Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.
-Psalm 51:10

 

The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire.
-Psalm 12.6

 

I do not think “purity” means perfection, nor is it an unreachable goal. When Jesus calls us to purity of heart, he’s calling us to an inner journey toward an ever-widening heart of love and compassion for all others, all creation, and the Creator. Purity of heart or inner purity is a process, a way of life, not a static goal. He calls us to a soft heart that beats, not a cold heart of stone. When understood this way, this Beatitude becomes an exciting invitation to an inner journey of love, compassion, nonviolence, and peace.
-John Dear

Purity of heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
-Matthew 5:8

The beatitude before us today, with its promise that the pure in heart will see God, reminds me of a favorite, rather strange short story entitled Revelation by Flannery O’Connor. Written towards the end of her too short life, the story features good Southern Christians, one woman in particular named Ruby Turpin. Ruby’s religion is unattractively mixed up with her own sense of superiority, her racism, her self-righteousness. (Have you ever heard of such a thing?)

The story ends as Mrs. Turpin has a vision of a procession, people crossing a bridge of light from Earth to Heaven. The people who ascend first are the ones Mrs. Turpin regarded as white and black trash, freaks and lunatics at the bottom on Ruby Turpin’s hierarchy. They ascend as “joyous, disorderly Christian soldiers.” The last in line include those like herself and her husband, though as they march upward “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

I was interested to learn that Flannery O’Connor, toward the end of her life, signed some letters as Mrs. Turpin, perhaps indicating that she detected some degree of self-righteous superiority in herself.

Purity of heart suggests sincerity. I had been once told that the root of the word “sincerity” has to do with burning away wax so metal can be made pure. Apparently, that is probably not true, which is too bad, because it ought to be. It would have served my purposes to say that purity of heart, a.k.a., sincerity, is about burning away those (perhaps impure) aspects of our life, those parts of our heart that draw us from the love of God, that obscure our vision of God.

The fact is, purity of heart, at least as I look at my own heart, is mostly aspirational. I’m guessing none of us achieve it fully in this life. One of my wise predecessors in ministry, Alan Gates, now Bishop of Massachusetts, repeatedly told his congregation that he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. Martin Luther said that we are saints and sinners at the same time. So we might as well start by admitting that purity of heart remains a growth opportunity. And then move on to take steps toward that purity, or at least, arrive somewhere in the neighborhood of purity of heart. How might that happen?

Once we’ve admitted that we need to have even our virtues burned away, that our pride about our virtues can be an impediment, we are free to realize that purity of heart has to do with love. It has to do with where we give our heart. Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The desert father, Abba Poemem said: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” So check in. Take your own inventory. Where are you giving your heart? Are you giving your heart to satisfying things?

Then develop practices that might deepen your love of God, love of neighbor, love of your world, love of self. The more that can happen, the closer we come to purity of heart. Growing that love, in all its aspects, has to do with practice. It’s about a relationship with God, and like any relationship, it comes with dedication of time and energy. In the Christian spiritual journey, that’s a matter of gathering for worship, commitment to service, rhythms of silence and prayer and study, especially study of the scripture through which the Spirit speaks, discernment about what we watch and what we won’t watch, what we listen to and what we won’t listen to, what we believe and what we refuse to believe. In all of these areas, we take steps toward purity of heart.

As we take those steps, ever purer hearts recognize dependence on God to lead us in the journey. That movement doesn’t happen because of our own wisdom or resources or fortitude or virtue. (Remember Mrs. Turpin.) It is a gift, a grace. Can we accept that gift this week, in some way, great or small? When that happens, we might just get glimpses of God. How cool is that?

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link

Monday Matters (October 11, 2021)

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Matthew 18:23-34
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Lord have mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
-Matthew 5:7

When Shakespeare wrote that the quality of mercy is not strained, it’s apparent he never got stuck in traffic. When I’m driving, and find myself in the wrong lane, I seek the mercy of other drivers to let me in. It is sometimes forthcoming, sometimes not. I’m grateful when I receive mercy. Yet when I’m in the correct lane, and some clueless bozo tries to squeeze into my lane, I only grudgingly let them in, usually with some thoughts about their ineptitude as a driver.

So today we talk about receiving and offering mercy, strained or not. There’s probably no better way to explain this beatitude then to share the parable Jesus told about a man who received mercy and then failed to show mercy to someone else. (That story is included above.) It suggests a dynamic implicit in the Lord’s prayer, which is basically that our asking for forgiveness is somehow related to our willingness to offer forgiveness. Our demonstration of mercy is connected to our receiving mercy.

So how might we grow in our capacity to be merciful, when often that goes against our instincts? As far as I’m concerned, showing mercy can at times take some work. It can call for intention. As I thought about that kind of intention, a few thoughts came to mind, triggered by Jesus’ parable, thoughts about what it takes to be merciful.

First, remember a time when you have been shown mercy. What did that feel like? Was it something you felt you deserved, or did it simply come to you as an act of grace, showered down on us to continue to channel Shakespeare? If it came to you as grace, as gift, how did that feel? Was it a joy or were you like Javert in Les Miserables who couldn’t bear that he was in a position where he was dependent on someone showing him mercy. He took it as an indication of weakness. He literally could not live with this view of the universe.

Second, if you find yourself being asked to show mercy to someone who has somehow done you wrong, take a deep breath and put yourself in the place of that person, the one asking for mercy. What is going on with them? What causes them to act as they did? Maybe that involves a conversation about the offending act. Maybe that calls for nothing more or less than prayer for that person. That can often be a way to get to mercy.

Third, consider whether the offense that calls you to show mercy is something that you actually need to work on in yourself. Maybe I’m the only one who has experienced this, but sometimes when I get worked up about something somebody has done, when something really irritates me about another person, I find after a bit of reflection, or perhaps some feedback from folks I trust, that I’m guilty of the very thing that makes me want to withhold mercy. Funny how that works. Sort of funny.

The bottom line: we all need to have mercy shown us. So if we want to know mercy, we need to show mercy. While I believe that is true, I also find it kind of annoying. Which is where the work comes in. If you do nothing else to try to live into this beatitude, think about the wideness of God’s mercy, wider than the sea. Celebrate the love of God broader than the measure of our minds. Ask God to help in that process, which may well be why in the liturgy we repeat, again and again: Lord have mercy.

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link

Monday Matters (October 4, 2021)

3-1
The righteous wisdom of St. Francis on his feast day:

We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.

 

If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.

 

No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.

 

While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where these is hatred, let me sow love.

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
-Matthew 5:6

In the blessing printed above (the beatitude before us this morning), Jesus builds on his first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit. As we discussed a few weeks ago, here’s another way to think about what it means to be poor in spirit: Blessed are those who know their need of God. It’s a blessing on those who are in touch with the God-shaped space inside each one of us.

So how will that space be filled? Today we hear that it has to do with righteousness, a word that calls for some unpacking. I’m wondering what associations you have with that word.

It’s easy to think of righteousness in moralistic terms. A righteous person does all the right things, toes the line, checks every box, a spiritual over-achiever, on the spiritual dean’s list. Ever met one of those? Not always the most attractive types. It’s easy for a righteous person to morph into a self-righteous person, like the guy in Jesus’ parable who looks at the tax collector and says: Thank God I’m not like that person. It’s also easy to think of righteousness as a matter of being right, which in religious circles often means that somebody else must be wrong, a prideful frame of mind that can be so toxic.

I have been helped along the way by the way St. Paul uses the word “righteous.” He saw it as a matter of relationship, about being rightly related to God, to others and to the world. The Greek word (transliterated as dikaiosune) can also be translated as justified. As an art director, I always connected that with justified type, which is a way of saying that type on a page has been set in right relationship. It has been aligned.

Jesus announces blessing on those who seek that kind of alignment, who hunger and thirst for those kind of relationships. Presumably, they realize they haven’t achieved it yet. Jesus came to help us with that process of alignment, or perhaps more accurately, with that realignment. At the church where I’m serving, as we have contemplated emergence from COVID, we have adopted wisdom from the Milwaukee Airport. At that airport, after you go through TSA, with socks and belts and watches and wallets and bags all over the place, there’s an area set aside by a big sign that reads: Recombobulation Area. In oh so many ways, we could use that kind of space right now. Maybe the beatitude should read: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for recombobulation.

And thanks be to God, on this particular day, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, we have an amazing model of someone who did that. He has been called the most admired and least imitated of all the saints. He speaks to us of righteousness, in the sense of being rightly related to God, to creation, to others, to himself.

He lived in loving relationship with all of creation, brother son and sister moon, negotiating and calming menacing wolves, preaching to the birds. (That’s why on his day, we have blessing of the animals. One year I blessed a big iguana who arrived at church in a snugli, having traveled to church with his owner on the subway.) Francis lived in loving relationship with others, taking on a life of poverty in order to serve those his society deemed as least, living out the sense of the Greek word for righteousness translated as justice. He lived in loving relationship with God, as he hungered and thirsted to be a channel of God’s peace. Not his own peace, but God’s peace. He lived in loving relationship with the church, as he answered Jesus’ call from the cross: Rebuild my church. And as a saint remembered over the centuries for unbridled joy, it seems to me that he arrived at right relationship with himself.

Thank God for his life and ministry and witness. Let’s see this week if we can not only express our admiration for him, but also find ways to imitate him. Let your creative imagination go to work: How can you be an instrument, a channel of God’s peace this week? Do you hunger and thirst for that kind of life?

-Jay Sidebotham


Episcopal Church announces ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ resource for spiritual growth

Responding to a hunger for deeper discipleship among Episcopal congregations, creators of the My Way of Love initiative announce an upcoming new spiritual journey guide, video and other materials designed for small groups.

“My Way of Love for Small Groups” expands on the individualized spiritual journey laid out in My Way of Love and offers step-by-step guidance, scriptures, prayers, and reflections for nine weekly group gatherings. The resources will be available in early October; a sample can be found at this link online.

“Participating in ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ is a great community builder and especially appropriate for smaller congregations,” writes Jay Sidebotham, founder of RenewalWorks, in the guide’s introduction. “We believe you’ll find it to be a great process for a vestry study, undergirding confirmation classes, informing a teaching series in youth group, or as part of a standard Bible study or prayer group.”

Read the full news release


RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 27, 2021)

3-1
If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.
-Epictetus
A great man is always willing to be little.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.
-C.S.Lewis
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
-Philippians 2:5-8

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
-Matthew 5:5

Someday, probably after retirement, I’ll write a book of tales from my ministry, stories of weddings, funerals, comments at the door of the church after a sermon, and encounters with search committees.

Here’s a sneak preview from one encounter with a group looking for a new rector. Midway through a very nice dinner at a quiet restaurant, a member of the committee asked me: “So, Jay, how do you respond when people tell us that you’re a wimp?” I recognized it as a rather shrewd question from a smart guy, tricky to answer, not unlike the question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” As I recall, I had two immediate thoughts. 1. Guilty as charged. 2. Waiter, can we have the check. I withdrew from that search process soon after that dinner.

Not that this filterless interviewer hadn’t hit on a truth, let alone struck a nerve. I’ve gotten over it. Really I have. Like many clergy, I live to please people. I hate conflict. And I might even rise to self-defense by quoting from the Sermon on the Mount, about the blessedness of the meek.

But that’s not available to me, because I’ve come to believe that being meek and being a wimp are not the same thing, no matter what our culture thinks of meekness. Too often this verse has been used to encourage people to be a doormat for Christ, and perhaps especially, to ask people who have been oppressed or marginalized to accept that fate. That does not seem to me to be the way of Jesus.

So what are we to make of meekness? It’s always interested me to read the description of Moses, the greatest leader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He’s the model of liberator, someone who found the courage to stand up to Pharoah and orchestrate the exodus, someone who dared to believe that the waters of the Red Sea could part, someone who led the children of Israel through the desert, navigating challenges to his authority. So how do the Hebrew Scriptures describe this guy? In the King James Version we read: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) A recent lectionary selection from the New Testament letter of James sent this: “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (James 1:21)

I don’t remember many sermons, including my own. But decades ago I heard a sermon on this teaching of Jesus, given to a congregation filled with powerful people in our nation’s capital. The preacher described meekness as power under control. It is that quality of humility which Frederick Buechner describes this way: “True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.”

As we think about meekness in terms of power under control, it becomes a stewardship issue. What do we do with what we’ve been given? Do we use it for our own sake, for self-promotion, or to diminish others? Canon Stephanie Spellers, in her book The Church Cracked Open, speaks of the call to stewardship of privilege. I suspect all of us experience some kind of privilege. In the global context, the fact that we read this column online means we have more than many. If we have more than one pair of shoes, we’ve got more than most. Blessed are the meek who have privilege, whatever form it takes, and who use it for good.

And what is the measure of such blessedness? They shall inherit the earth. Again, I’m not entirely certain what that means. It’s subject to wide-ranging interpretation. But give this a try. Blessed meekness has to do with living in the world as God intended, with a right sized understanding of who we are and who God is, and with a commitment to use what we’ve been given for good. Try living in the world that way this week. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I suspect our world could use more and not less meekness.

-Jay Sidebotham


Episcopal Church announces ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ resource for spiritual growth

Responding to a hunger for deeper discipleship among Episcopal congregations, creators of the My Way of Love initiative announce an upcoming new spiritual journey guide, video and other materials designed for small groups.

“My Way of Love for Small Groups” expands on the individualized spiritual journey laid out in My Way of Love and offers step-by-step guidance, scriptures, prayers, and reflections for nine weekly group gatherings. The resources will be available in early October; a sample can be found at this link online.

“Participating in ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ is a great community builder and especially appropriate for smaller congregations,” writes Jay Sidebotham, founder of RenewalWorks, in the guide’s introduction. “We believe you’ll find it to be a great process for a vestry study, undergirding confirmation classes, informing a teaching series in youth group, or as part of a standard Bible study or prayer group.”

Read the full news release


RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog